ON THE TRAIL OF NEGRO FOLK-SONGS

A Collection Of Negro Traditional & Folk Songs with Sheet Music Lyrics & Commentaries - online book

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38
NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
Scotch version has a stronger ending, for in it the maiden roundly accuses her delinquent relatives and invokes spirited curses upon them. Child says that there are many versions of this familiar ballad theme, from both northern and southern Europe. One tradition is that of a young woman captured by the corsairs, who demand heavy ransom, which her own family refuse to pay but which her lover gladly gives. Another tradition holds that the story is all alle­gory, the golden ball signifying a maiden's honor, which when lost can be restored to her only by her lover. That would explain the sentence of death; for, in old times, death by burning or hanging was the penalty for unchastity on the part of a maid or wife.
Miss M. A. Owen gives a different and more dialectic Negro ver­sion in "Old Rabbit, the Voodoo," the story of a Negro child to whom a golden ball is given at her birth by a "conjur man." He warns that she must never break the string which binds the ball about her neck. But she does break it, and the ball by its magic turns her into a beautiful white girl. The child's mother dies and a step-mother steals the ball, whereupon the girl is changed back into a Negro. As if that were not enough, she is accused of having murdered the white girl, who is now, of course, missing. She is sentenced to death, and appeals to her father.
Oh, daddy, find dat golden ball,
Ur yo' see me hung 'pun de gallus-tree I
But father does not aid, for " he go by," and all her relatives in turn fail her. In this case even her "beau" turns his back upon her, and she is about to be hanged. At the last moment the magician appears, disguised as a "beggar-man," and restores the golden ball to the girl, whereupon her fairness and beauty return. The beggar himself changes on the spot to a handsome young man, who vanishes with the girl into the side of a hill.
Professor Smith writes later: "It was a matter of profound interest to me to learn that The Hangman's Tree, or The Maid Freed from the Gallows, had been dramatized by the Negroes and was being played in many remote sections of Virginia. So far as I know, this was the first instance on record of the popular dramatization of a ballad in this country.
"Nothing has interested me more in the quest of the ballad than to find that for, doubtless, hundreds of years the Negroes have been singing and acting this haunting old ballad and nobody knew any­thing about it. In addition to the evidence adduced in my article, I have a letter from Mrs. Robert R. Moton, wife of the former presi­dent of Hampton, now Tuskegee, dated December 2, 1915, saying: